According to the national projections, Kentucky is now just one victory away from playing in its first New Year’s Day bowl game in 20 years.
The first batch of updated postseason predictions following the Wildcats’ 34-23 victory over Middle Tennessee in the home finale Saturday all placed UK in such a game, and the Citrus Bowl in Orlando remains the most likely destination.
CBS Sports, the Sporting News, Bleacher Report, 247Sports, CollegeFootballNews.com, ESPN’s Kyle Bonagura and the Orlando Sentinel have all posted new projections pitting Kentucky against Northwestern in the Citrus Bowl, which will be played at 1 p.m. on Jan. 1 in Camping World Stadium and televised nationally on ABC.
It would be the Wildcats’ first New Year’s Day bowl appearance since UK played Penn State in the Outback Bowl to end the 1998 season.
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The wild card in this week’s bowl projections comes from veteran college football journalist Brett McMurphy, who predicted on WatchStadium.com that Kentucky will play Central Florida in the Fiesta Bowl — one of the prestigious New Year’s Six games that are selected by the College Football Playoff committee.
The Wildcats’ inclusion in such a game would be dependent on their final College Football Playoff ranking. Right now, they’re 17th in those rankings, but Jerry Palm of CBS Sports is projecting that UK will be No. 12 when that list is updated Tuesday night. Palm has UK ahead of Florida (projected at 13th) and Penn State (projected at 14th) — two teams that are currently ranked ahead of Kentucky.
McMurphy also gives UK the New Year’s Six bowl berth over West Virginia, which is currently ranked ahead of the Cats but is a slight underdog at home against Oklahoma this weekend.
If Kentucky can take care of business Saturday against Louisville — and leapfrog those three teams in the College Football Playoff rankings — the Cats could still find themselves in a New Year’s Six bowl game.
New projections from USA Today and SB Nation also have Kentucky playing in the Citrus Bowl, though those outlets are predicting the Wisconsin Badgers as the Wildcats’ opponent. Stewart Mandel of The Athletic is predicting that Kentucky will play Penn State in the Citrus Bowl.
The Citrus Bowl will get its pick of the Southeastern Conference teams that do not make the College Football Playoff or one of the New Year’s Six bowls, a group UK is unlikely to make following the loss to Tennessee earlier this month. UK (8-3) plays at Louisville (2-9) on Saturday in its regular-season finale, and the Wildcats will be major favorites in that rivalry game. A victory over the Cardinals would likely secure Kentucky a spot in a New Year’s Day game.
After the Citrus Bowl, the Outback Bowl is the most-attractive destination in the SEC pool, and both Eric Single of Sports Illustrated and Mitch Sherman of ESPN are projecting UK will play in that game, which is scheduled for Jan. 1 in Tampa, Fla. Single matches UK up with Michigan State, while Sherman pits Kentucky against Penn State.
Both analysts have Mississippi State — a team UK beat this season — in their Citrus Bowl slot.
The Outback, Belk, Gator, Music City, Liberty and Texas bowls are all included in the SEC’s Pool of Six games. For placement in these bowls, the SEC — in consultation with the remaining bowl-eligible teams and representatives from each bowl game — will make the assignments for which school goes to which bowl game. Representatives for each bowl and each school can list a preference, and the league will assign placement after that.
SEC-affiliated bowl games
*New Year’s Six bowl game